What Are We Afraid Of?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Roslan Rahman / AFP / Getty

A spider waits for its prey at the Singapore Zoological Garden.

We use search engines for a variety of tasks; from locating that hard-to-find toner cartridge for an obsolete printer, that last informational nugget for a research project or a flight status on a stormy day in Denver. But sometimes, when we're alone with our computers, perhaps late at night, a search page can double as our therapist or confidant, an inanimate object capable of answering questions about our darkest fears.

Understanding what we're collectively afraid of as a society is a very difficult task. How can we trust survey responses to questions about what we perceive is our greatest weakness? Sure it might be easy to admit to common fears like public speaking or spiders, but how likely are we to admit to "fear of monsters," "fear of pickles," or "fear of elbows." Before turning to search data to learn more about fear, I've often wondered what the most common phobias are.

What are you afraid of? Let me guess (although I really don't have to).

On any given day, examine the millions of searches we type into Google, Yahoo! or MSN. Once you get past the 12% for online shopping, 9% for educational questions, and 5% for news, deep in the long tail of what we type into that empty search box, Internet users ask about fears. Measuring what we're truly afraid of is as simple as amassing all of the searches in a given week or month for the phrase "fear of." By doing so, we can rank our most common phobias.

Top "Fear of" Searches 12 weeks ending 3/17/07

1. flying

2. intimacy

3. the dark

4. death

5. spiders

6. driving

7. love

8. god

9. success

10. being alone

Source: Hitwise

Conventional wisdom is that our biggest fear, greater than the fear of death, is the fear of public speaking. Based on search data, however, conventional wisdom is wrong. In fact, the "fear of public speaking" doesn't even make the top 10. Over the last two years of persistent Threat Level Orange, the fear of flying has consistently ranked as our most ominous apprehension.

Things get interesting when you get past the top ten "fear of" searches to the very long list of very individual and odd concerns. Among the unusual fears — such as: feet, happiness, lint, ceiling fans or even the "fear of getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth" — lives an interesting pattern. Sifting through over 1500 "fear of" searches in the last 12 weeks there are two opposites that play out repeatedly: we're afraid of being isolated ("fear of being alone") almost as much as we are of making a connection ("fear of intimacy").

Maybe this disconnect is fueled by our "fear of rejection" or a "fear of losing a loved one," or "fear of being dumped." Or maybe we've succumbed to the overwhelming volume of sexual dysfunction spam that's driven our "fear of not performing."

Or maybe the discrepancy between these two most common fears is the concern we have about discussing our weaknesses with others. As e-mail, text and instant messaging replace our face-to-face chats, perhaps it's become easier to disconnect. We're more comfortable talking with a non-judgmental search engine about our problems, or maybe we're simply afraid of what our fears reveal about ourselves, that's #173 in the list also known as Phobophobia, "fear of fear."

Bill Tancer is general manager of global research at Hitwise.